The U.S. national debt has reached a new and almost meaninglessly high peak. At over $22 trillion, there is no hope of ever paying the debt off without huge reforms and a drastic change of course from Congress. But Congress has no institutional incentive to solve the problem. That must change.
The regular accountability measures for Congress are laughably ineffective. Few representatives are ever voted out of office for big spending. And the waivable debt ceiling is about as worthless as a 16-year-old installing a porn filter on his own computer. It can just be turned off when it suits him.
There must be institutional incentives for Congress to reverse the spending problem, and legitimate safeguards that Congress cannot simply vote away.
Building New Incentives
The problem with crafting new incentives is that Congress is the body that has to make the law. It means that any wish list is likely dead on arrival, but that does not mean it isn’t worth talking about. If Congress cannot reform itself and cut the spending habit, a default or depression will make decisions for them.
- Congressional salaries or benefits should be diminished by a certain percentage every time a budget is passed with spending exceeding revenue. This wouldn’t be to save money; it is to penalize irresponsible voting. This may be legally difficult, but something has to force politicians to start internalizing the costs of their reckless “budgeting.”
- Term limits should be put in place to prevent career politicians from establishing political empires. This is sort of a clunky solution to the problem, but may help shift incentives. (Alternatively, it could work the opposite way, because with no reelection, there is less incentive to be accountable). However, it could help get outsider and younger representatives, the type more likely to be bearing the burden of the debt. Of course older Americans should have a say in Congress, and the people deserve the representatives they choose to elect, but septuagenarians voting on spending have a completely different incentive than 40-year-olds who will still be around to pay that debt.
- All forms of federal tax withholding should be ended immediately, requiring all filers to write a physical check or deliberately submit payment for their taxes. This would give taxpayers a better understanding of how much they are actually being taxed, and help reframe taxes in the proper sense as your own money that government takes. This would likely inspire taxpayers to hold their representatives accountable, and with the added focus, incentivize better fiscal discipline lest representatives face bad press or be voted out of office.
Adding New Safeguards
A change in incentives is required since Congress is the only body with control of spending. That means there must be ways to shift their behavior. This likely is not enough, so there must be measures in place to restrain their options. Many of these would need to take the form of constitutional amendments, which may require a constitutional convention by the states to push forward.
- We should ratify a balanced budget amendment establishing a firm cap on spending. It couldn’t simply be lifted like a debt ceiling with a majority in Congress. This would give constitutional preeminence to balanced budgeting and at a minimum prevent new deficits.
- There should also be a constitutional amendment requiring Congress to pass a legitimate budget every year. It is already the law, but Congress treats it like a suggestion. Omnibus packages containing wild variations of law, policy, and budget prescriptions are inappropriate and only increase spending by promising a little something for every representative. This compromise by addition is a huge loss for taxpayers. Continuing resolutions should also be capped at 95 percent of the previous allocation.
- There should be mandatory spending cuts of a certain percentage. This wouldn’t cut specific programs or policies, but require X percent each year going forward to be reduced in total spending. The penny plan is one such option.
- All spending should be made discretionary, but because huge mandatory spending is already on the books, entitlement reform is a critical. Mandatory spending and promises to pay future benefits lock the budgeting process into a straightjacket. Looking at the debt composition, retirement, disability, and other payments are a much higher portion of the debt than people think. Changes in retirement age and a system that encourages private savings for health and retirement would help reduce these obligations going forward.
It is possible that none of these solutions can be implemented or fully realized. Or that even if all are put in place, more would be needed. The bottom line is that we must be thinking about solutions and advocating all of them. The debt is a disease and a single treatment won’t destroy it. We need a potent cocktail of policies to drastically shift incentives and provide institutional rules and guidelines that prevent backsliding.
This is not just about revenue, but spending. Perhaps taxes need to be raised to truly combat the rampant debt. But year after year, the federal government reports record high tax revenue, and year after year, Congress continues to spend even more than is brought in. At current interest rates, the debt is a barely manageable concept, but as soon as those rates increase, the debt will become something far worse and unimaginably toxic.
Serious changes need to take place, because it is immoral to saddle future generations with the kind of debt we continue to amass with their names on the bill. If Congress continues to spend without remorse, it is important that the people and the states demand action, vote with debt in mind, and push for institutional changes to combat the growth of the national debt.